Telecommuting Trumps Urban Planners

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Peter Holle

A silent revolution underway in Winnipeg and around the world means more for our future than the trite topics bandied about in the current election campaign. It originates in the relentless advance of technology, particularly the spread of high-speed internet access throughout urban and rural areas. Overwhelmingly positive, but disruptive, this sea change is turning old policy shibboleths on their heads.

Our politicians are relatively powerless to contain this revolution, which shatters conventional thinking in at least three key respects – urban sprawl, transit and the future configuration of downtown. The phenomenon of telecommuters – the tens of thousands of Winnipeggers who work at the end of an internet pipe, a group that is not politically aware or organized, and therefore invisible – is already well advanced. Mostly highly educated, well-paid knowledge workers who do their thing at home, they don’t use transit and they infrequently visit downtown.

Based on figures from the United States, this cadre likely outnumbers Winnipeg’s declining number of transit users already. In Oklahoma City, for example, geographically similar to Winnipeg, telecommuters outnumber old-style commuters by 5 to 1. They have no impact on fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, accident rates, air pollution or peak-hour congestion. They represent the future, the emerging technologically dispersed economy. Yet our policy establishment remains fixated on an old economy that is fading inexorably away.

Does it make sense to pour huge subsidies into declining transport modes like transit and a fancy, but probably obsolete Hydro headquarters to boost the downtown when its jobs and share of economic activity are declining in both an absolute and relative sense? While it remains environmentally chic in some quarters to obsess with urban densification – witness Waverley West, at the end of the day the telecommuter will still choose a spot with a good mix of services and private spaces, whatever policy urban planning elites presume to impose. No surprise, they increasingly opt for the flexible and more accommodating suburban ecosphere than a city-centre environment of high taxes, poor services and increasing crime.

This signals a need for aspiring electoral candidates to move beyond faddish policy dinosaurs and return to the basics of good local government – great services, quality amenities, regulatory simplicity, effective police enforcement and an end to ramshackle roads. It means finding ways to make transit better within existing budgets, upgrading roads to accommodate a dispersing economy and dramatically re-inventing downtown.

In this context, downtown revival entails a reversal of poor policy choices made by the provincial government, and to a lesser degree, city hall. We need to rethink high-tax policies that push valuable head office jobs to Alberta, and rent control and other regulatory instruments that prevent the centre city from becoming the chic residential living environment it could be. We need to update old, “Plan Winnipeg” attitudes to urban sprawl – a natural product of a wealthier society and the technological dispersion of our economy.

Unlike Canada’s megacities, we have lots of space. That’s a recipe for plentiful, affordable, large-sized telecommuter friendly housing, only hours away from cottage country.

It’s all here. Vive la technologie!